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Strategies for SAT and ACT Success

If you're thinking about college, you've probably heard about the SAT and ACT tests. The SAT and ACT are standardized tests commonly used for college admissions. While standardized test scores are just one component of the college application process, a strong score can boost your application. This blog aims to provide a comprehensive guide to help you make informed decisions about which tests to take, when to take them, and how to prepare effectively. While our upcoming webinar on March 5 will be packed with expert tips and invaluable advice to take your test-taking strategies to the next level, let's not wait—let's dive in now!

Understanding Test-Optional Policies

The COVID-19 pandemic made many colleges switch to test-optional policies, changing how students apply for admission. Here’s what you need to know about the different testing policies:

  • Test-Required: You need to send your SAT or ACT scores no matter what.

  • Test-Optional: You get to choose whether or not you send your scores.

  • Test-Blind: The college won't even look at your scores, even if you send them.

To learn about a school's testing policy, you can usually find this information on the college's admissions website. Knowing this can help you figure out where you want to apply and how important these tests are for your application.

SAT vs. ACT: Which One to Take?

The first step in your testing journey is to understand the options available to you. The SAT and ACT are the two primary tests used for college admissions in the United States. (Note: The PSAT, a precursor to the SAT, is also an important test, especially for juniors, as it can qualify you for National Merit Scholarships. PSAT scores are not part of college admission decisions.)

Deciding whether to take the SAT or ACT can be tricky. Here are factors to consider:

Format and Content

  • The SAT has moved to a digital format, while the ACT remains paper based. Note that starting February 2024, ACT will offer an online testing option at select locations nationwide.

  • The digital SAT is composed of two sections: Reading and Writing and Math. Students have 64 minutes to complete the Reading and Writing section and 70 minutes to complete the Math section for a total of 2 hours and 14 minutes. Each section yields a score ranging from 200 to 800. The sum of these two section scores constitutes the overall SAT score, which ranges from 400 to 1600.

  • In contrast, the ACT consists of four sections in English, mathematics, reading, and science. The four sections contain 215 questions and take 2 hours and 55 minutes to complete. If you take the optional writing test, you will have 40 minutes to complete the essay. The ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, with separate scores for each section. The composite score is the average of your four test scores, rounded to the nearest whole number.

  • While many schools do not require the ACT Writing test, there are some colleges and universities that either require or accept ACT writing scores as part of their admissions process. It's always a good idea to check the specific requirements of the schools to which you're applying to determine whether or not you need to take the writing section of the ACT. Even if it's not required, you may choose to take it to boost your application if you think you'll do well.

  • It's worth noting that the ACT is more fast-paced, which may make a difference for some students in managing their time per question effectively.




Reading and Writing






Writing (optional)

Total Questions



Total Time

2 hours and 14 minutes

2 hours and 55 minutes


1 minute and 24 seconds

48 seconds

How to Decide

  • Try Them Out: While online quizzes and short tests offer a glimpse into which exam might suit you, the most effective method is to take full-length practice tests for both under timed conditions. Your high school might offer the PSAT/SAT and/or the PreACT/ACT, so check with your school's guidance office to see which tests you can take there, as you might already have a test date coming up. You can also practice for the SAT and ACT using free online resources (see below).

  • Compare Your Scores: When you've tried both the digital SAT and ACT, a concordance table is a useful tool to compare your scores from each test. It places them side by side, helping you evaluate which test might best represent your abilities. If your score on one test stands out, that could be the one to focus on.

Planning Your Testing Timeline

When should you take these exams? A general recommendation is to start considering them between the summer before your junior year and the midpoint of your junior year. This timing allows you to understand which test suits you best and plan your test-taking schedule, including potential retakes.

Here's what to keep in mind:

  • Math Matters: Make sure you've gotten through at least the first semester of Algebra 2 in school before you attempt these tests.

  • Your Schedule: Align test dates with periods when you can dedicate time to prepare and when they won't conflict with extracurricular commitments.

  • Testing Comfort: If taking tests makes you nervous, consider how many times you want to go through this and plan the number of attempts accordingly. Typically, three attempts at your chosen test allow for improvement but after that, you might not see as big of a change in your scores.

  • Early Action (EA)/Early Decision (ED) deadlines: Aim to complete all SAT or ACT attempts, including potential retakes, by September or October of your senior year. This ensures that your scores will be available in time for EA and ED application deadlines,

To Send or Not to Send: Navigating Test-Optional Policies

With many colleges adopting test-optional policies, deciding whether to send your scores can be tricky, but remember you have the flexibility to choose which schools you send them to. This means you can send your scores to some colleges but not to others, depending on what you think will benefit your application the most:

  • Research the College’s Middle 50% Score Range: Submitting scores within or above this range could give your application a boost.

  • Superscore Policy: When colleges superscore, it means they'll consider the highest scores from each section across all your test dates, which can give you a higher overall score. If your superscore is strong, it can be a good idea to send your scores to colleges with such a policy.

  • Consider the Requirements for Your Intended Major: Some programs, especially in fields like engineering and nursing, may still require test scores, even if the college generally doesn’t.

  • Scholarships: Some schools offer merit-based scholarships that require SAT scores, even if they have a test-optional policy for admissions.

Preparing for the Tests: Strategies and Resources

As you gear up for the SAT and ACT, the preparation phase is key. There are numerous free resources online available to guide your study. Here's how you can make the most of what's out there:

  • SAT:

  • ACT:

  • However, the key to success is not just accessing these resources but also committing to a consistent study plan. Establish a study schedule that fits into your daily routine, and commit to sticking to it.

  • When customizing your study plan, consider your individual strengths and preferences. Some students might thrive with self-study using free online resources, while others may benefit from structured courses or one-on-one tutoring.

Fee Waivers

If cost is a concern when considering the SAT or ACT, fee waivers are available for qualifying students. For the SAT, eligible students can get up to two waivers, and for the ACT, up to four waivers are available. These waivers not only cover the cost of the exams but often include additional benefits like sending free score reports to colleges.

To get a waiver, start by talking to your school counselor. They'll guide you through the process and give you the necessary code to use when registering for the SAT or ACT. Remember, your counselor is your go-to resource for help with fee waivers, so make sure to reach out to them well ahead of the test registration deadlines.

Beyond Test Scores

Your test scores are just one piece of the puzzle. Colleges evaluate applicants holistically, considering grades, extracurricular activities, essays, and letters of recommendation. So don't let these tests take over your life. It's all about finding the right balance.


Getting ready for the SAT or ACT doesn't have to be a headache. Understand what colleges are looking for, pick the test that suits you best, and plan your test dates wisely. These tests are just one step on the way to an amazing future in college. Good luck!

And remember, don’t forget to mark your calendars for our upcoming FREE webinar on March 5, where you'll have the chance to dive deeper into mastering these exams with insights from an expert speaker. Get ready to unlock insider tips, strategies, and invaluable advice to elevate your test-taking game. You won't want to miss this opportunity to supercharge your SAT and ACT prep journey!



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